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WBU CEO's Remarks for International Day of Persons with Disabilities opening ceremonies, UN Headquarters, New York

December 1, 2017

THEME: Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

WBU CEO, Penny Hartin, speaking at UN Headquarters, New York

It is truly an honour for me to address you this morning at these opening ceremonies to commemorate the International Day for Persons with Disabilities.  

While I am here representing the World Blind Union, I also note that the WBU is a founding, core member of the International Disability Alliance, and we strongly believe in the importance of working together with other disabled persons organizations to achieve more inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies. 

Indeed, it is through partnerships and collaboration that we have achieved so much over the past years. Working together we achieved the UNCRPD, and disability inclusion in such global development agendas as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the New Urban Agenda and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. 

Moreover, our success in advocating for the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, illustrates how collaboration and advocacy for a common cause can result in international policy that can make a tangible difference for hundreds of millions of people with print disabilities.

While these international instruments are important and helpful in confirming the imperative for inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society, they can only truly make a difference if they are fully embraced at international, regional, national and community levels through strong implementation and monitoring processes.  

The Marrakesh Treaty, for example, has now been ratified in 33 countries, which is very encouraging. However, unless the treaty is implemented through national copyright legislation that reflect its spirit, it will miss its opportunity to actually make books accessible and available for people who are blind or print disabled. 

Similarly, if implementation and monitoring strategies for the SDG’s do not include data disaggregation by disability as part of those strategies, then we will not be able to measure the impact that their implementation is having on the lives of people with disabilities.

A key aspect in transforming societies to be sustainable and resilient for all is harnessing technology as a key driver and tool for such transformation.  Technological advances have contributed enormously to enhancing education, employment and community participation for people with disabilities, particularly for those of us who are blind or partially sighted who benefit from more immediate and cost-effective access to braille, document reading, wayfinding and so forth.  Personally, I probably have 10 apps on my iPhone that replace 10 different devices I used to carry around or have in my home. So technology has the opportunity to truly make a difference for independence and inclusion.

Conversely, however, most technology is simply too expensive for most persons with disabilities, the majority of whom experience huge unemployment rates and a much higher rate of poverty than the general public and for whom such devices are out of reach, either because they are inaccessible or unaffordable.  So technology can offer a promise of increased inclusion, but only if we find ways to make it accessible and affordable.

Another threat related to our technological advances is the lack of universal design to ensure accessibility is built in.   This is particularly an issue for household appliances, self-serve kiosks, point of sale systems, all which tend to rely on touch screens.  Touch screens can be made accessible if accessibility features have been incorporated into the design. After all, both Apple and Android have done it and some others as well.  But manufacturers of household appliances generally have not considered how their devices can be used by those who are unable to use the touch screens.  

We likely all remember when silent cars first came on the market and celebrated the fact that there would be less noise in our environment.  Unfortunately, no one really thought about what those silent cars would mean to independent travel for blind people, who rely on hearing traffic patterns to cross the street safely. After many years of advocacy at the International Standards Organizations, we are finally agreeing on standards that would introduce a minimum sound that is detectible by pedestrians, including blind persons. 

This is a clear example of the impact of not considering the needs of people with disabilities in planning and development, whether it be for products, infrastructure or services. 

I firmly believe that to build a fully inclusive, sustainable and resilient society, it is essential to address the unique needs of women and girls with disabilities and undertake measures to ensure their full and equal participation.  We are all too aware of the lack of access to education, accessible healthcare and productive employment opportunities for women and girls with disabilities. We know that they are more subject to violence and abuse than either disabled men and boys or non-disabled women and girls. And we know that women and girls with disabilities who face humanitarian or disaster related emergencies are particularly vulnerable due to lack of accessible infrastructure, adapted information and insufficient planning and preparation to understand and meet their needs.  

So it is critical that all programs and services  be planned and delivered to ensure access to and participation by women with disabilities and that they be engaged in their planning and delivery.  Furthermore, for that to happen in a meaningful way, women with disabilities must be encouraged and facilitated to assume leadership roles.  It is our experience that there are few women with disabilities in leadership positions at any level.  Particularly illustrative of this issue is that at the last CRPD Committee elections held at the Conference of States Parties in 2016, no women were elected and indeed, at present, only 1 of the 18 committee members is a woman. So, clearly there is more work to be done to ensure that women with disabilities have the skills and opportunities to assume leadership roles. 

Eleven years after the adoption of the UNCRPD, much has been achieved to reduce barriers, change attitudes and include people with disabilities in the global agenda that will influence participation and societal development. And given the rapid pace of technological advances that have both the opportunity to enhance inclusion and reduce exclusion, we must all be vigilant to maintain our achievements and that we continue to progress and prosper – as all citizens of the world including the more than 1 billion of us with disabilities.

My sincere thanks for your attention. 

Penny Hartin
Chief Executive Officer
World Blind Union​​
December 1, 2017​